By Vashti Kelly, Program Manager
The debate about H-2A guest workers in farm work is ongoing. Depending on your point of view, you are either in favor or against but it is rare to find those who are on the fence. In a recent article in the Santa Ynez Valley News, the H-2A guest worker program is seen as the answer to the dwindling agricultural labor force as a result of the U.S. crackdown on undocumented immigrants, among other reasons. Even with the favorable outlook of the guest worker program in this article, California faces a housing problem when it comes to providing shelter for all the H-2A workers. On the other side of the argument: growers, who, because of the lack of immigration reform and according to them an aging American workforce, are feeling forced to apply for H-2A workers to keep their farms operational.
The H-2A guest worker program was intended to allow agricultural employers to hire non-immigrant workers from other countries on a temporary work permits to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. However, because the program is intended to supplement a shortage of domestic workers agricultural employers must show proof they were unsuccessful in their search to meet their labor needs. And, since it is a government program there are long standing requirements that despite the ebbs and flows of political administrations have remained fairly constant.
H-2A guest workers are entitled to certain protections under the law:
- H-2A employers must provide housing for H-2A workers at no cost to the worker. The housing must meet federal and state safety standards;
- Employers hiring H-2A workers must provide workers’ compensation insurance for occupational injuries (not health insurance coverage);
- All H-2A workers are entitled to free daily transportation to and from the worksite.
However, despite these so-called built in protections, H-2A workers sadly fall victim to the typical treatment of farmworkers, such as wage theft and improper housing. Guest worker protections and programs, not unlike those that were in place for the Bracero program, which was done away with as a result of the rampant labor abuses, don’t have a great history in the U.S.
It is a fundamentally unsound system where in theory foreign workers are highly recruited, sold ‘American Dreams’ of economic opportunity and build great expectations. Yet the reality soon looms large once they arrive in the U.S., dangerous working conditions, and unavailable work, lower than advertised wages, dilapidated housing, and oftentimes complete isolation; this is No Way To Treat A Guest. And, although guest workers are to receive Worker Protection Safety training prior to beginning work, it is not uncommon for this agreement to be overlooked as well. For these reasons AFOP Health & Safety Programs trains all agricultural workers on farm worker safety, our purpose is to educate workers on how to better protect themselves regardless of classification.